This week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a pact with other West Coast governors to coordinate their response to the coronavirus pandemic. That came after news that Oregon appears to be succeeding at keeping new deaths and infections down, but at great cost to the economy. On Friday, the governor spoke with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller about the prerequisites for reopening the state, the possibility of different approaches in rural and urban areas, and the challenges facing Oregon’s unemployment system.

Q&A with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Dave Miller: On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her counterparts in Washington and California announced that they would coordinate their efforts at reopening their respective states on the West Coast. On Tuesday, she outlined Oregon’s prerequisites: We have to have fewer cases of COVID-19; adequate PPE — meaning masks and gloves and gowns; and a much more robust public health system that includes testing capacity, contact tracing and an effective quarantine or isolation program for new cases.

Meanwhile, even as the curve is flattening here, the economic toll is hard to fathom and seemingly getting worse by the day. Almost one in seven Oregonians have filed initial unemployment claims since just the beginning of March. That’s probably an undercount, and the hit to the state’s budget could be $3 billion.

Gov. Brown, I know that you have a lot on your plate right now. Thanks very much for joining us once again.

Gov. Kate Brown: Thank you so much, Dave, for having me today.

Miller: I want to start with the idea of reopening the state, over time, and under those prerequisites that I mentioned. I’m still struggling to see how this is going to work without either an effective treatment for COVID-19 or a vaccine, both of which seem to be more than a year away. Even if we have more testing and more PPE and contact tracing, if the virus is still present somewhere in this country or around the world, and we start to go back to some version of regular life, how are we going to prevent localized outbreaks?

Brown: That’s a really good question. And these are the types of questions that governors across the entire United States are wrestling with. There is no playbook here. Most of us have never lived through anything like this.

I can make a few exceptions. I know we have a 104-year-old Oregonian in the Lebanon veterans home who was alive during the Spanish Flu. But most of us have not been through this. We are truly all in this together, and we’re going to have to work together as we reopen up.

My framework for reopening Oregon is about the “when.” It’s science-based and data-based. But in terms of how we do it, that’s where Oregonians come in. There should be a collective and collaborative effort, and that’s what I’m intending to do over the next few weeks.

Miller: I’m focused on the “when”as well. Everybody is in their own ways. I’m just honestly struggling to understand — not just for older people, but for everybody who may interact with older people or vulnerable people, and anybody can actually get sick, even if some people are more likely to get sick. I’m struggling to understand how we can do any of this safely without a vaccine or effective treatment, even with all the prerequisites that you mentioned. I don’t understand the mechanism.

Brown: I think that’s a really good question. I think we will continue to do this in a way that is gradual and incremental. It is fair to say that we will not have a vaccine or any medicine, for several months, maybe a year or so.

We’re going to have to rely on public health experts, epidemiologists, physicians and nurses to help us through this transition. And we’re going to have to do it gradually. And we’re going to have to do it carefully.

So I laid out my framework. The White House also laid out their approach this week. As you can see, they’re very much aligned. The work we are doing with California, Oregon and Washington, our frameworks are in alignment. That doesn’t mean we’re hitching our wagon to them, but we’re definitely building trails together.

And here’s what we do know: We have the ability to use modeling. For example, we know that the social-distancing measures that I put in early have made a difference. It has slowed the transmission of the disease and it has flattened the curve. We now know that this is effective. So if we start to reduce our social distancing measures, we have to do them incrementally, step-by-step, and then test each one to see whether the disease spreads again.

A sign reminds people to maintain 6 feet of space at Portland International Airport on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Many airlines have canceled flights to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A sign reminds people to maintain 6 feet of space at Portland International Airport on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Many airlines have canceled flights to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Miller: When you say incrementally or sector by sector, what’s an example of, say, a commercial sector that you think right now you’re prepared to say would be on the earlier side of opening and the ones that are going to have to wait longer?

Brown: I have given examples that then became the reality. I am not going to give you an example, because as I said, we’re going to have to do this collaboratively and collectively.

So we are meeting, for example, with the restaurants — the restaurant association and individual restaurant operators — over the next couple of weeks to get their feedback on how we could do this. For example, can you put in plexiglass between tables? I know that California Gov. Gavin Newsom talked about, do you use paper menus? Are we going to have people in masks most of the time?

These are the kinds of things that we are going to have to try to see if they work. And then we will know based on modeling, based on surveillance testing, based on numbers of cases, whether or not these are successful.

But essentially, we’re going to have to be innovative and creative. And you know what, Dave, that’s what Oregon is all about. We know how to create new things. We know how to innovate, we know how to produce. This is not going to be easy. It’s going to be really, really hard, but it will bring out the best in Oregon.

Miller: There are a couple of different possible models here in terms of the medium-term timeline.

One is wait longer to open everything up until it seems that maybe even globally there’s very little chance of more hotspots, of more areas of infection.

The other would be to incrementally open things up faster to get the economy moving and to get more income-tax revenue pumping into cities and states and the county bloodstreams. But then, maybe there are going to be cycles of re-closure.

Those are two broad ways to think about this, in my mind, right now. Which one do you think would be better?

Brown: For the economy, for Oregon, I think it is better that we gradually reopened as opposed to un-shutter the entire economy and ping-pong back. I don’t want to be in the ping-pong phase.

There was a great National Geographic article about the Spanish flu. The cities that open up too early, they saw incredible backlash. We don’t want that to happen here. That’s why we’re going to move incrementally and gradually.

But you asked about the impact on people. My top priority right now is to protect the health and safety of Oregonians. And I’m incredibly grateful for the tough sacrifices that Oregonians have made across the state. But we also have to balance that, at some level, with people’s livelihoods. And I think we can do this. We can do it via geography, county by county. We can do it by region. Of all people, you know that this disease has no borders. That’s why California and Oregon and Washington are coordinating on the broader framework, aligning on the broader framework.

We have to try this. We know that not everything we’re going to do is going to work, but we have to try something. We can’t stand still.

Miller: Let’s turn to this question of geography. And even, as you say, potentially a county by county way to think about this. As you know, Republican lawmakers have criticized your decision to sign onto a pact with your fellow West Coast governors. Their criticism essentially, as I understand it, is that the strategy is not going to work for rural Oregon. The county commission in Harney County says, “Hey, you know, this is not working for us.” It seems like there is a little bit of a geographic and partisan divide that’s been brewing here.

Would you consider treating the east and west sides of the state differently, in terms of opening up the state? And it’s worth pointing out that for minimum wage and for cap and trade — two recent examples — there was  an effort to do that. Is COVID-19 a situation where you would approach it similarly?

Brown: Absolutely. Absolutely. We know that we have a handful of counties across the state that have virtually no cases that we are aware of, right?

What we do need to have in place for them to open up is that they have to have the ability to test. They have to be able to test people who have symptoms and people who don’t, who may be asymptomatic. They have to be able to test folks, as they are going into medical procedures — for our rural hospitals, for our rural dental care providers,  for our rural medical offices. And we have to have the ability to do surveillance testing. That’s going look different in Harney County than it is in Washington County. No question.

But whether it’s Wallowa County or Clatsop County, they also need to have adequate personal protective equipment. And I’m fighting every single day to make that happen. And I think Oregonians need to know why the PPE is so important.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the closure of all bars and restaurants in the state and a ban on gatherings of 25 or more people in a press conference with Oregon health leaders in Portland, Oregon, on March 16, 2020.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the closure of all bars and restaurants in the state and a ban on gatherings of 25 or more people in a press conference with Oregon health leaders in Portland, Oregon, on March 16, 2020.

Kaylee Domzalski/OPB

We needed to make sure that we can protect our health care workers in our hospitals and our health care clinics, people in our dental offices. We need to be able to protect our workers in our long-term care facilities. We need to be able to protect our frontline workers, our home health care workers, our bus drivers. We need to be able to protect our grocery store workers.

We also, as we begin to open, need to make sure that our hospital capacity is adequate to meet any surge. Let’s say you have no cases in Harney County and then all of a sudden you have an increase. We want to make sure that their medical system can handle a surge.

Those are the things we are going to be looking at and that’s why it’s really important.

I’ve impaneled this medical advisory panel to help me inform my decision making while we’re doing this. They’re essentially helping me put meat on the bones of this framework.

Miller: You mentioned testing as one of the prerequisites for any of this. Tim Outman, on our Facebook page, wrote this:

“Oregon, with a population of 4.2 million has only tested 32,000 by April 15th. Other states are experiencing the same pitifully slow response to testing. I realize that the decision to expedite widespread testing … was delayed for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was the President’s slow response to the seriousness of this virus. Yet, here we are.”

When will we see widespread testing of various kinds, including for people who are asymptomatic, in Oregon?

Brown: We don’t know the answer to that question. We are all working — I literally just got off the phone with Congressman [Greg] Walden — we are both talking directly to companies across the United States, that are making these tests.

I’ve got a call in to the White House right now saying, “We want to begin this reopening process, but we’re being held back by adequate testing capacity.” Our congressional delegation is working on it. My team is working on it. The Oregon Health Authority is working on it.

We are testing roughly 8,000 Oregonians a week. We think that needs to ramp up. We’re hoping it’s going to ramp up quickly, and we’re doing everything we can to make it happen.

Miller: What does it need to ramp up to? What is the, the goal you have? If it’s 8,000 a week right now, what should it be?

Brown: It’s going to look different in different communities around the state. 

Miller: Is there a statewide number that you have in mind that your experts have told you?

Brown: I think generally speaking, we need to double the capacity that we have right now — move from roughly 8,000 tests to 15,000. But these are really rough numbers, Dave. And we have to be able to test symptomatic people, we have to be able to test for people going into surgeries, and we have to be able to do surveillance testing. That’s what we need for testing capacity.

Miller: Let’s turn to the budget, because the numbers there are really dire. Lawmakers are expecting a $2 billion to $3 billion drop in revenue for the rest of this biennium, and there’s only a year and a few months left, so it’s a very concentrated hit. It’s even worse than if it were at the beginning of the two-year cycle. It’s a staggering amount. It’s a lot bigger than what is currently a pretty big reserve. The state had been in relatively good shape, and this is going to most likely wipe that out and then create an even bigger hole. We’ll know more from the May revenue forecast. But right now, what are you doing to prepare for the wave that seems all but certain to hit?

Brown: It’s fair to say that we are in a quadruple bind.

No. 1, we are seeing plummeting revenues.

No. 2, we have incredible public health needs. We are going to have to ramp up our investments in public health in order to deliver on the testing capacity, the ability to do contact tracing and the ability to isolate and quarantine people.

The third thing is, and this is just so hard, we have so many Oregonians across the state that are in dire financial need — housing expenses, food, shelter, all of those pieces. We absolutely need to deliver more services to Oregonians.

And then the fourth thing is, unlike the federal government, we have to balance our budget. So I know we are going to face very hard choices in the future. We have probably not seen a budget shortfall like we’re going to see when the May forecast comes out. But right now, at this moment, at this time, we have to focus on delivering services to Oregonians. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The Oregon Employment Department's Unemployment Insurance online claim system, pictured on Friday, April 17, 2020.

The Oregon Employment Department’s Unemployment Insurance online claim system, pictured on Friday, April 17, 2020.

Bryan M. Vance/OPB

Miller: In my mind, this is akin to the kind of medical situation where you have 50 respirators, but 150 people need them. For state services, this is essentially what you’re looking at. When you say we need to focus on delivering services, the terrible but necessary question is: What is most important and will happen no matter what? And what, even if it’s painful, will you let go of?

Brown: Those are tough choices. We are not going to make those tough choices right at this moment. We’re really focused on getting basic services to Oregonians. Let me give you an example — and we know that our needs are going to far outweigh our resources — the Employment Department, right? In the last three weeks, we’ve had roughly 270,000 claims filed for unemployment.

Miller:  That’s almost one in seven Oregonians. And that’s probably not a full count.

Brown: That’s correct. We started at the outset of this pandemic with a hundred employees in that department. We have now ramped up to 400, and in the next week or so, they’re ramping up to 800 state employees. They’re processing 8,000 claims a day. They have gotten the $600 a week additional checks out to Oregonians starting this week.

And I have to give a shout out to [Sen.] Ron Wyden — I know he is responsible for that. I talked to [U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia] yesterday about this, and he talked about how Ron was pushing him.

We are bringing new people into the system, with the federal legislation, that haven’t typically been part of our unemployment insurance. Folks who are independent contractors, folks working in the gig economy. So they’re working very hard, but literally we’re gonna go from a hundred employees to 800. As you can imagine, we didn’t have the office space. We’re finding the office space and the computers and the phones so they can meet Oregonians needs. That’s just one example. 

Miller: As as you know, we’ve heard from people who say that, instead of having a job now, they spend all day, every day calling and calling and calling to find out about their claims. Some people have said that they’ve called 600 times a day and just cannot get anybody to answer their phone. You’re saying you’re adding more people every day now, really adding a huge increase in capacity. How long before those people can actually get a human being on the phone and get clarity about their claims?

Brown: Oregonians who are unemployed, what I would tell them is this: As long as you have filed, we are working as fast as possible to get you the benefits you are owed. And, obviously, we’re also working to get the pandemic under control so you can get your job back or find another one as soon as possible.

Miller: A group of Oregon political leaders asked you to fast-track approval for a 100-bed mental health facility in Wilsonville. In the past, the state had said the company behind this proposed facility had not demonstrated the need for it, and some mental health advocates say that’s still the case. They don’t want you to go forward. But a lot of high-profile leaders say, “Yes, please, we need more beds right now, and COVID-19 has only made that more apparent.” Will you use your emergency powers to approve the construction of this facility?

Brown: The Oregon Health Authority are doing everything in their power to meet the needs of vulnerable Oregonians and get this pandemic under control. Once we have the pandemic under control, I am certainly very willing to participate in a conversation about how we meet the needs of folks with behavioral health issues in this state. The task force that I had in place, obviously, during this pandemic has been put on hold. I know that there are a lot of Oregonians suffering from mental illness right now. At this point in time, the agency and my team need to be focused on the pandemic.

Miller: You mentioned masks earlier, along with the possibility of plexiglass separating tables at restaurants. As you know, a number of states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, have required people to wear masks under certain circumstances in public. In Oregon, masks have so far still just been a suggestion. What would it take for you to order people to wear masks if they go out in public or go to a grocery store?

Brown: Dave, I know that Oregonians want their lives to go back to normal. Things are going to change as a result of this pandemic, and this virus is still going to be with us. There are going to be things that we are going to have to do that are different than how we have lived our lives in the past, and masks are part that.

Miller: Can I ask the question again? What would it take for you to order Oregonians to wear masks if they go out in public?

Brown: I’m certainly talking with my medical advisory panel, with epidemiologists and with the Oregon Health Authority. Obviously, the CDC came out with recommendations. I’m really, really clear — we are going to have to make adjustments to our lives and masks are going to be part of that.

A man wearing a respirator takes a walk Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Local health officials have recommended wearing PPE like masks and gloves to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A man wearing a respirator takes a walk Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Local health officials have recommended wearing PPE like masks and gloves to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Miller: OK. We have different ideas of what clear is, I guess. But, Gov. Brown, thank you very much for your time. I really do appreciate it, and I look forward to talking again. There’s always going to be more, sadly and importantly, to talk about.

Brown: Thank you. Thank you, Dave. I also want to say thank you to Oregonians who’ve been so gracious about complying with all these new social distancing measures. Because of their generosity, we were able to contribute 140 ventilators to the state of New York, and that started a wave of other states donating. We’re all in this together and I really thank you for your time today.